Q: Why is there soy in so many foods, even meats? I think I’m allergic to soy, so I have been reading labels very carefully, and I’m amazed at how many things have soy — things I’d never imagined would have it.
Answer: You’re right, soy is in hundreds of foods because it has hundreds of very useful characteristics. Soy protein, like wheat or milk protein, is used for multiple reasons.
It can simply be an extender, adding less expensive protein to more costly meat proteins, for example. Many products that contain ground beef also contain soy protein to increase the protein content without raising the cost. But soy protein is also very useful in prepared foods such as frozen beef patties and many sausages because the soy helps hold onto the moisture. The meat won’t lose as much juice or shrink as much with the soy.
Soy protein also helps baked goods to hold moisture, as well as decrease the crumbling and breakage. Soy helps keep fat from oozing out, creates the skin on hot dogs, and helps make dough more elastic for kneading. It’s used as a whitener in non-dairy creamers, to provide color and to make your coffee feel creamier in your mouth, and it helps baked goods brown, too.
The proteins help whipped toppings stay whipped. And they can help prevent the cream from separating from the water in these and other products. Ironically, some products that obviously contain soy are usually the least problematic for people with allergies. Soy oil or margarine and soy lecithin are so highly purified that they don’t have enough protein left to cause allergic reactions. And soy isoflavones are being tested to prevent cancers. But all of this says nothing about the uses for soy in cosmetics, medications, clothing, carpets, paint, ink for newspaper and hundreds if not thousands of other products in our daily lives. Rather than try to diagnose yourself with a soy allergy, see a doctor for a reliable test.
Mary A. Keith, a licensed dietitian and health agent at Hillsborough County Extension, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.